FBI Role in Terror Probe Questioned
Saturday, September 2, 2006
Standing in an empty Miami warehouse on May 24 with a man he believed had ties to Osama bin Laden, a dejected Narseal Batiste talked of the setbacks to their terrorist plot and then uttered the words that helped put him in a federal prison cell.
"I want to fight some jihad," he allegedly said. "That's all I live for."
What Batiste did not know was that the bin Laden representative was really an FBI informant. The warehouse in which they were meeting had been rented and wired for sound and video by bureau agents, who were monitoring his every word.
Within a month, Batiste, 32, and six of his compatriots were arrested and charged with conspiracy to aid a terrorist organization and bomb a federal building. On June 23, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales held a news conference to announce the destruction of a terrorist cell inside the United States, hailing "our commitment to preventing terrorism through energetic law enforcement efforts aimed at detecting and thwarting terrorist acts."
But court records released since then suggest that what Gonzales described as a "deadly plot" was virtually the pipe dream of a few men with almost no ability to pull it off on their own. The suspects have raised questions in court about the FBI informants' role in keeping the plan alive.
The plot featured self-proclaimed militant religious leaders who referred to themselves as kings, talked of establishing their own nation inside the United States, called their headquarters an embassy and discussed plans to train their recruits to use bows and arrows. One of their quixotic notions was to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower.
Batiste's father, a Christian preacher and former contractor who lives in Louisiana, told the news media after the indictment that his son was "not in his right mind" and needed psychiatric treatment.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, separating serious terrorist plotters from delusional dreamers has proved one of the FBI's most challenging tasks. The effort is complicated by the bureau's frequent use of informants who sometimes play active roles in the plotting.
U.S. law enforcement officials say they do not have the luxury of waiting for a terrorist plot to mature before they break it up. A delay, they say, could mean that a member of the plot they had not discovered might be able to pull off an attack.
At the news conference, Gonzales acknowledged that Batiste was nowhere near carrying out a terrorist act.
"Our philosophy here is that we try to identify plots in the earliest stages possible, because we don't know what we don't know about a terrorist plot," he said. It is dangerous to evaluate in advance that "this is a really dangerous group; this is not a dangerous group," he added.
But lawyers for the defendants have raised questions about where a government sting ends and entrapment begins. Not only did government informants provide money and a meeting place for Batiste and his followers, but they also gave them video cameras for conducting surveillance, as well as cellphones, and suggested that their first target be a Miami FBI office, court records show.